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Erev Rosh HaShanah 2017/5778

09/26/2017 02:25:37 PM


Rabbi Jill Perlman

Shanah tovah.
A Letter to my Children
Dated the First of Tishrei in the year 5778
To my dear children, to Lev and Eli and Maya –
On the eve of this great big new year, I am think
ing about the book that I read to you sometimes at night. The Hugging Tree by Jill Neimark. It begins:
“On a bleak and lonely rock by a vast and mighty sea grew a lonely little tree where no tree should ever be.”
The illustration on the first page shows a little sproutling seemingly all on its own. It’s holding on as best as it can to the edge of the cliff as clouds loom ominously above.
Lev, Eli, Maya, there are times when I am reading you that story and I think I am that little tree out there flailing in the storm.
And then a worst thought arrives.
It’s you, you’re out there, hanging over a cliff, on the verge of being uprooted.
As your parent, I want to teach you optimism. I want to teach you resilience. I want to instill in you hope.
For the world is not as simple as I would like it to be for you, my loves.
With harsh winds blowing all around and an unforgiving sea below, the little tree calls out: “Mighty cliff, hold me tight. Don’t let me blow away.”
The cliff calls out in return: “Little tree, with all my might, ‘ I’ll hold you close, night and day.”
I am thinking a lot about how we are rooted in this life. And uprooted, too. What allows us to dig our roots deep? How deep do we need to dig to withstand the storms that rage around us?
“Her tiny roots pushed night and day, and bit by bit the rock gave way. A smidge, an inch, a foot, then two. She grew and grew and grew and grew.”
I want you to be rooted so that you can grow. I want you to be rooted so that when the storm inevitably comes, you can withstand the winds.
If I could make the storms stop raging, I would.
If I could stop the need for your shelter-in-place drills, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
If I could assure that that you will never be the target of a bully, that you’ll never bear the brunt of anti-Semitism, I absolutely would.
If I could make this world all that you deserve, you know that I would.
I won’t pretend to you that this world is perfect. We are full of flaws. I want you to know this so that you are prepared, so that you are not blind to your privilege, so that you can join all good people of conscience in repairing this world.
The most important job I have as your parent is to help you dig your roots deep and to whisper continuously in your ears to be brave and to be courageous.
We’re living in a time, you see, when a lot of people are afraid. It doesn’t matter if they’re little like you or big like me. We all get scared.
In my role as rabbi, many people have come through my door to talk about feeling like that tree hanging over the edge.
And I say to them just as I have said to you (and as I tell myself time and time again):
It’s okay to be afraid. Don’t run away from the feeling. It’s telling you something important about what’s happening around and inside of you.
Allow yourself to be afraid.
Allow yourself to be in pain.
Allow yourself to be angry.
And then ask yourself: what am I to do with all this fear and pain and anger?
It was Shimon Peres who said that the Jews’ greatest contribution to the world is dissatisfaction!
Lev, Eli, Maya, use that dissatisfaction with the world as it is and your anger and your pain and your fear and your courage and do something just as our forbears did before us.
Be like Abraham when he stood up for the innocent at Sodom.
Be like Shifra and Puah who defied a Pharaoh.
Be like Moses who refused to be a bystander as he watched a slave being beaten by those in authority.
Be dissatisfied.
The truth is that sometimes life's trials are thrust upon us or we are thrust upon them.
We’re like that seed that takes root on a lonely cliff side. We know we shouldn’t be here; the wind has blown us out of our comfort zone. We look around, startled, and ask ourselves, How in the world did we get here? I know a lot of us have been asking that question lately.
And yet… and yet all we have left to do is deal with it. It may not have been our choice to take on the trial but it is always our choice in how we respond.
One of the best-known prayers of the holy day season is Unetaneh Tokef. It asks the prophetic question: In the year to come, who will live and who will die. It is a text that begins without human agency. It acknowledges that yes, there is so much in this world over which we do not have control and we feel powerless. But the good part… the good part is that the text doesn’t end there.
Unetaneh Tokef ends with what to me feels like a sacred gift, a sacred calling, a sacred command in Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah.
Our tradition likes to live in the tension, in the in-between as it both comforts and challenges us. It screams at us: It is not your responsibility to get it all right, to fix this whole world, but don’t you dare stop trying!1
So what can we do? We can take on the sacred work of teshuvah, which translates to turning - and turning to me means recognizing the incredible potential for transformation within and beyond. Sure, life is happening all around us and to us, but that does not negate that we can also be great architects of grand change. We don’t have to accept the world as it is with all of its flaws. Doing teshuvah means we get to tinker and imagine and dream big in order to create the world as it should be, the world we all deserve.
So what can we do? We can take on the sacred work of tefillah, which refers to our capacity for prayer, our capacity to be open to the vastness that is our universe, to being a part of that sacred something that is so much bigger than each one of us. To me, tefillah is about walking through this existence with an open heart and soul. There’s so much out of our control, but do you know what we can control? We can control how many times we say I love you. We can control how many times we say thank you. Doing tefillah means living with love and gratitude.
So what can we do? We can take on the sacred work of tzedakah, which means that we are generous with our time, our energy, our pockets, our hearts. What we can control is how we respond to the events around us. When our hearts break after Charlottesville, we organize. When homes go under water in Texas and Florida and islands across the Caribbean, we donate. When the futures of young people in our nation are in question, we stand by the Dream that is America.
Teshuvah. Tefillah. Tzedakah.
When the difficulties of life happen, I want you to know – clear as day - what the Jewish response is. The Jewish response is do teshuvah, do tefillah, do tzedekah. The Jewish response is to do something. Change, open up, give. Show up. Resist. Do justly. Love. Pray with your heart. Pray with your feet. Move with sacred purpose.
And that’s how we stand strongly in the storm.
It was George Bernard Shaw who said, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
You will be happier, I promise you, when you count yourselves as sacred servants of this world. When you push forward with purpose. For you are powerful. And you are capable of doing so much good in this universe.
But sometimes we forget that truth about ourselves.
Why do we forget this most essential part of who we are?
Somehow, our own power and ability to affect change gets lost in the hubbub of life. Disappointed by our failures, overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems on our own plates, never mind the problems of the world, we begin to see ourselves as powerless. And I forget this truth sometimes, too.
“Storms will come and storms will go. At last the sun melted the snow. But now the tree could not grow. The storm had torn her roots. The moon gazed down and softly said, ‘Sometimes we lose our way. But with help, we start again. That’s how life is, you know.”
That’s how life is, you know.
I’m thinking of Joseph, Joseph of Technicolor coat fame. Joseph had been thrown into the pit by his own brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of a heinous crime, and forgotten in a jail cell. Joseph was a m
an who was as low as a man can be – literally – he had been thrown into a pit! How could Joseph, poor Joseph, hold onto hope that anything would ever be different?
But you see, Joseph had always been a dreamer. And he had dreamed for himself a different ending to his story.
Eventually, Joseph was delivered from the dungeon; he rose to success in his new land, rejoiced in the birth of children, reconciled with his brothers, and saved his family and people from starvation. Perhaps even Joseph the dreamer couldn’t imagine the heights to which he would ascend after dwelling in the depths for so long.
When I spiral or become overwhelmed or forget my truth or my power, I think about Joseph and about a particular moment from midrash that has always moved me.
Midrash imagines Joseph choosing to return to the pit that his brothers had thrown him in decades before. Joseph stares down into the darkness where his journey had begun. He could have raged against that pit. He could have shed tears for his lost years. He could have spit into it – and really, who would have blamed him? But instead… instead, midrash teaches us he returned to the pit so that he could utter a blessing for the miracle wrought for him in that place.”2
A blessing for the pit. A blessing for the struggle. A blessing for the man that he had become.
When Joseph was on the other side, he was able to consider the journey of his life as a whole. From his story, we glean the wisdom that every moment is only a moment, not a permanent or prophetic state of affairs. Holding onto hope that perhaps a better tomorrow is on the horizon was essential for Joseph’s survival. And it is essential for ours as well.
When we feel beaten down by hurricane after hurricane after hurricane… or when hatred marches in our streets… or when our hearts have been broken… we have a choice. We always have a choice. We can stay where life has dropped us, we can stay in the pit, let go of our grip on the cliff side… or… we can remember the sacred purpose that exists within all of us. And I see that purpose in each one of you.
There will be plenty of days ahead when you won’t see that spark or feel that purpose inside of you. There will be days when you are tired and not sure if you can go on, days when you are hanging on to the side of the cliff… but please know that I know that it’s there. I believe in you. And others do, too. You are not alone.
“And soon a boy came running by, skipping stones into the sea. When he saw the little tree he stopped and stared. He touched the tiny leaves. He felt the ragged roots. He shook his head and said, ‘I can bring just what you need. I can help you, little tree.’”
“Every day the boy came back carrying a full backpack. From the pack he took a tin and poured out rich, brown earth. He packed the roots and tucked them in.”
We need one another to get through the harder days of our lives. My children, your roots reach down deep and your backpacks are full of soil. I pray that you will accept help when you need it. And that you will offer help whenever you can.
I believe that your souls, resilient and kind, have the power to change the very nature of the cliff side when you do teshuvah, when you are architects of turning and transformation, when you do tefillah, when your hearts overflow, and when you do tzedekah, when you generously and courageously give.
It always feels a little bit like a miracle when we turn to the last page of The Hugging Tree and we see that that tree is not so little anymore… And I can’t help but look at you and see that you are not so little anymore either…
And wonder of wonders, not only has the tree itself grown, but we learn that the tree’s roots have developed into a vast expansive root system that is now magnificently and bravely holding the entire cliff side together.
“Now every day new people stop to rest beneath the little tree and dream the things we all dream of. To love, to share, to give, to dare, to grow just where we are.”
“And to this very day they come. For on a splendid sunny rock by a warm and bright blue sea, a great big hugging tree grows just where she was meant to be.”
One day, we might feel like we could fall into the ocean and disappear. And the next, we discover that we have become the anchor, the one holding it all together.
One day, we receive the help; our roots get packed with earth. And the next, we are the open hand; we hold the cliff side together.
And that’s life, too, you know.
There will be ups and downs, victories and failures, sunny days and stormy weather. But if your roots are deep and there is a helpful hand nearby, I know that you will withstand the storm, my loves.
I want to teach you optimism. I want to teach you resilience. I want to instill in you hope. But all I need to learn these things, I realize now, is to look at the wonder that is you.
“For on a splendid sunny rock by a warm and bright blue sea, a great big hugging tree grows just where she was meant to be.”
Yes, we are growing just where we are meant to be.
Love, Mom
Shanah tovah.
[1 ]Pirkei Avot 2:21
[2] Tanchuma, Va-y'chi 17
Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783